This article was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.239, 19th July 2019
H.V. Morton’s first book, “The Heart of London” was published by Methuen & Co., of London, on 11 June 1925. It comprises forty-nine essays and sketches of London people and places compiled from a series of seventy-five articles published in the Daily Express newspaper early in 1925. By then HVM was already establishing himself as a creditable feature writer for the Daily Express and a favourite of the newspaper baron, Lord Beaverbrook.
The book ran to at least 25 editions or re-printings by 1949. In October 1926 the fourth edition was produced in a larger format with 24 scissor-cut (silhouette) illustrations by the Viennese artist Lisl Hummel.
Recently I was lucky enough to be able to acquire a copy of the special scissor-cut edition and was able to see for myself these delightful additions to Morton’s observations of his beloved London. The silhouettes have a child-like innocence which complements Morton’s words, adding to them in a way that photographs couldn’t possibly do. They lend the work a slightly fantastical feel, as if we were not learning about actual places or events but rather reading a set of fables.
For this special edition, Morton wrote a special introduction:
LONDON has been pictured by countless pens and brushes, inspired and humdrum, but this is the first time that an artist has hunted the City with a pair of magic scissors. Miss Hummel is a young Viennese artist who has specialised in, or, as I prefer to call it, tamed, a most intractible material—black paper.
I think it will be generally agreed that the scissor-cuts in this volume are remarkable for their vitality, their beauty of line and their charm. Before I saw Miss Hummel at work with her magic scissors I had no idea that there could be so much to admire in a silhouette.
Well, curiosity got the better of me and I thought I would do a little digging on the subject of Miss Hummel and find out why her illustrations seemed to resonate so strongly. It took me a while and, as is often the case when researching books, I was all too easily distracted while pursuing connections which, though enjoyable, had little to do with my original project. But eventually I built up a picture of the artist, albeit an incomplete one.
According to this source at AskArt.com (which references “Artists in California, 1786-1940” by Edan Hughes), Lisl Hummel was born in Austria on May 19, 1892 (the same year as HVM). During the 1920s Hummel was a student at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, CA. By 1930 she was married to Dr. Henry Barsook. She worked as a freelance artist in Pasadena into the 1940s and later moved to Oregon with artist Don Foth. She died in Santa Barbara, CA on May 30, 1990. Her works include landscapes with eucalypti and oaks.
This brief biography makes no mention of book illustrations, silhouettes or scissor cuts and suggests she was living in the US when she was involved in illustrating Morton’s work. Eventually however (information is sparse until you know where to look), I started to unearth a few other titles which she had been involved with and straight away the reason her illustrations seemed so evocative became clear. They are all children’s books, and I have a feeling there were a few battered copies around in my various family homes as I grew up. Although one at least is still in print, many seem quite rare these days but occasional copies can be found on the websites of second hand book sellers. Looking at the pictures of covers and illustrated pages to be found online there is a simplicity about them. Like the works of Morton they are unpretentious and accessible, there is no ‘side’ or hidden agenda about them and I could see why Morton’s “The Heart of London” seems to have been the only ‘adult’ work that Miss Hummel has collaborated on.
For the record, the other volumes which I was able to find are as follows:
“The Little Pagan Faun & Other Fancies” by Patrick R Chalmers (a collection of stories from Punch, the dustjacket of the 1914 edition is illustrated with five vignettes from the book). Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York (circa 1914), also Jonathan Cape (1927).
“Toy Ships: Poems for children” by Florence B Steiner (with 25 illustrations). Publisher: The Graphic Publishers, Ottawa (1926).
“A Little Christmas Book” by Rose Fyleman (featuring ten scissor cut illustrations). Publisher: Methuen (1926) and George H. Doran Company, New York (1927).
“Poems for Peter” by Lysbeth Borie (an author from Philadelphia, this book is still in print today). Publisher: J.B. Lippincott & Co. (1928).
“The Four Young Kendalls” by Eliza Orne White. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company (1932).
“The Good Natured Bear” by Richard Henry Horne. Publisher: Macmillan, New York (1945).
I don’t own any of these books, yet I feel, from looking at their descriptions, I know them and that they have made an impression on me. Anyone who ever watched The Singing Ringing Tree on a tiny old black and white television set as a young child will know exactly what I am talking about!
If anyone knows any more about Miss Hummel and her scissor-cut illustrations I would be delighted to hear from them. In the meantime it is well worth looking out for this unique edition of “The Heart of London” which comes up for sale occasionally, it makes a charming addition to any collection of Mortoniana.
With best wishes,
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England